Major Spanish-speaking homeless shelter agency set to close after state withdraws funding

Several staff members told the Globe that they – and the families they serve – are being punished for the misdeeds of Manuel Duran, the longtime former executive director who quit a year ago and is now doing facing criminal charges.

“It’s not fair that our contract wasn’t renewed because of something we had no control over,” said Darlene Vaccaro, supervisor at Lawrence, who was once a client. “It’s as if we were being punished for something we had no knowledge of. It looks like another betrayal.

Jahira Oliver, who has been staying with her two children at a Casa Nueva shelter in Dorchester for five months, said she was unhappy her family had to leave. She doesn’t know where they will go next.

“We have become quite comfortable here, with each other and with the workers,” said Oliver, who gave birth to her one-month-old baby.oldest son while living at the shelter. “The workers were so understanding. They did everything to make me feel comfortable. »

A DHCD spokesman did not explain why the contract was not renewed. Instead, the spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “the safety and well-being of shelter occupants is DHCD’s first priority,” and the agency is working to find “d ‘other providers able to successfully provide these important services to vulnerable families’.

In January, Duran agreed to pay $6 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Attorney General Maura Healey, who accused him of pocketing millions of dollars supposed to help the homeless. Under the deal, Duran, who built a real estate empire while managing the shelters, must sell nine properties, including three homeless shelters, and turn over the proceeds to the state.

Healey’s office alleged that he stole $2.29 million from the agency, but under the state’s misrepresentation law, the state was able to collect triple the amount.

Duran also faces separate criminal charges, for allegedly stealing at least $1.5 million from the nonprofit in an elaborate scheme in which he secretly rented his own properties from Casa Nueva. Vida for shelters. He charged exorbitant rents, prosecutors say, while using rental contracts to secure bank loans to expand his real estate portfolio.

Duran is charged with perjury and a range of other charges. The case is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on May 16.

Still, Duran has opened new businesses that own and operate real estate since leaving Casa Nueva Vida in April 2021, state records show. Under his agreement with the Attorney General, he is prohibited from working for any nonprofit organization or agency that receives state funding.

A former employee of Casa Nueva Vida said that before Duran’s scheme was discovered, she and other workers raised concerns about him with the DHCD official who oversaw the contract.

“Several people told him that they had to investigate Manuel. He violated the rights of residents and employees and misappropriated funds,” said Kathia Solorzano, who worked at Casa Nueva Vida for over three years. “I told them about the ancillary businesses. They told me that need prevailed over right or wrong.

She said she also warned the DHCD that Duran often routed homeless people from his shelters to apartment buildings he or his partners owned.

DHCD officials denied having any knowledge or knowledge of Duran’s wrongdoing.

Duran’s attorney, Thomas Dwyer, called the decision to cancel the Casa Nueva Vida state contract “grossly unfair” and urged Governor Charlie Baker to step in “to correct this sad injustice.”

“I am extremely disappointed,” Dwyer said, noting that state officials had given Duran no hint that they were planning such a drastic measure. “A charity that has done good work in the community for over 30 years is being forced to close.

Vernon Blessing, the interim executive director appointed in January, was notified in early April that the state was withdrawing its funding, the workers said. Most families have not yet been informed of the closures.

On Tuesday, the DHCD moved the first of the families from Casa Nueva at another shelter, an official said.

“I feel very sad, very uncomfortable,” said a resident of the Santa De La Cruz shelter, through a Spanish translator. She has lived for a year in a Casa shelter in Dorchester with her 8-year-old son, Edgar Villar. “It’s like starting over. I don’t know if we will have the same treatment in a new place.

Employees said they housed more than 550 families during the two-year pandemic. The staff of 90, made up mostly of women, is largely bilingual. Residents of the shelter are often Spanish-speaking, although Casa Nueva Vida is also open to people of other backgrounds.

Zaide Estremera, a senior case manager, said the agency has moved 109 families from its shelters to more permanent housing in the past year alone.

Maria Gutierrez, a Boston housing manager, said the families were “very, very depressed, very sad” to have to leave Casa Nueva Vida. “The state will not put them on the street. This is a good thing. But what will happen to them? Families become very close. They cook together. They watch TV together. Waiting for housing — waiting for an apartment — is very hard.

“I pray to God please help us,” she said. “I hope for a miracle. We live in America where miracles always happen.


Andrea Estes can be contacted at andrea.estes@globe.com.

Edward K. Thompson